Aug 14

The blues chord progression, or 12 bar blues progression, is a standard I-IV-V chord progression that spans twelve measures. While there are a few extremely common twelve bar progressions that repeatedly pop up, there are even more variations on the standard formula. Take a look at my earlier post about the 12 Bar Blues Progression for the basic outline and general information, because in this post, we’ll be looking at some of the common variations.

Standard Variations

These first two blues progressions are basic in their construction, only changing a few chords, primarily the durations of the V chords and placements of the IV chord. Take a look.

Simple Blues

This first progression is the most basic, but notice how I notate each of the changes. The changes are relative to each other.

For example, if one were to play in the key of E:

  • The I chord would be an E
  • The IV chord would be an A
  • The V chord would be a B

If one were to play in the key of C:

  • The I chord would be an C
  • The IV chord would be an F
  • The V chord would be a G

The keys of E and A are more popular with guitarists than with pianists, who prefer C or G, because of the tuning of the guitar and the number of accidentals on piano. Let’s look at a common modification to blues chord progressions.

Common Blues

  • Notice the addition of the IV chord in the second bar, this serves to break up the beginning of the blues progression. Without it, the progression can become stale while sitting on the I chord. This is the most common chordal variation on the blues progression.
  • Also notice the addition of the IV chord in the 10th measure, this serves to create more movement, leading to the return of the I or root chord. This is another very common variation.
  • And last is the addition of the V in the last measure, this serves as the “turnaround,” a common blues device that states the end of a progression.

Jazz Variations

The use of blues chord progressions is extremely common in jazz, especially in the big band or bebop genres. Below are some examples of typical variations, however, this time I’ve included the changes in the key of F for simplicities’ sake.

Big Band Blues (Basie Blues)

  • Notice the similar construction in the first four bars, the only changes are the addition of the diminished chord and the minor 7th chord which serve to create movement and color.
  • Again, in the 5th bar, we see the diminished chord following the IV chord. The basic idea behind the placement of the diminished chord is that the harmony remains relatively stable while the bass note raises a half step to create tension.
  • In the 8th bar, we see the chord change to a VI chord, a change uncommon in basic blues. This serves to create color and movement leading into the cadence (or last four measures).
  • In the 10th bar we see a distinct departure from the standard blues cadence, the IIm7 chord creates some tension and is an inversion of a V9th chord.  Again, we see implied chordal harmonies adjusting with changes to the bass note.

Bebop Blues

  • Notice the similarities in the bebop blues and big band blues? While they are very similar, bebop blues are designed to be played extremely fast. At these high speeds, the chordal harmonies often act as the melody. Each chord change leads nicely to the next.
  • The first four bars are identical, but the bebop blues is without the diminished chord.
  • The second four bars are very similar, but the bebop blues adds a IIIm7 chord before the VI7 chord, again, to create movement leading to the cadence.
  • The first two bars of the cadence are identical to the big band changes but the turnaround (final two bars) are not. They lead down in perfect major fourths to the root, A-D-G-C and finally back to F. This creates movement that anticipates the I chord.
Aug 6

A lot of folks tend to lump all types of blues in a super genre called “the blues.” However, there are quite a few distinct styles of blues that can almost be put into a different genre all-together. Quite a few more well known genres of music fall closer to the blues than one might think. I’ll go over several different styles of blues and illustrate how they eventually evolved into the common genre’s of jazz, rock and country.

Early Blues: Urban Blues, Delta Blues and Country Blues

The entire modern genre of blues sprung forth from the traditions of early African American slaves. In the early 1900′s they began to play and sign what could easily be recognized as the precursor to modern blues. Their blues were derived from and based on “field hollers” or traditional work songs found in African American slave communities in the south. This makes the blues one of the few uniquely American genres of music. Obviously based on African heritage, the genre rose to prominence as an accessible form of self-expression in the African American community.

Some examples of early bluesmen and women are:

  • Robert Johnson
  • Ma Rainy
  • Blind Lemon Jefferson
  • Blind Willie McTell
  • Bessie Smith
  • Leadbelly
  • and on and on…

To help you develop an ear for early blues and how it influenced the modern version of blues, I’ve included a few demos of early blues.

Black Snake Moan #1 by Blind Lemon Jefferson – Country Blues

Statesboro Blues by Blind Willie McTell – Urban Blues

Where Did You Sleep Last Night? by Leadbelly – Country/Folk Blues

Downhearted Blues by Bessie Smith – Urban Blues

Bid Band Blues

In the 1920′s and 1930′s there was a sudden interest in dance bands and big bands that based many of their musical styles after some of the basic chordal movements of earlier bluesmen and women. A few of the more famous names associated with this era are Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Duke Ellington.

Although not strictly blues in a the popular sense, big band blues and jazz are heavely based on early blues styles. The early styles of jazz in New Orleans developed alongside early blues. Many concepts and ideas flowed freely between jazz and blues before jazz went its own direction while blues did the same.

A few famous big bands and conductors:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Count Basie
  • Tommy Dorsey
  • Benny Goodman
  • Glenn Miller

Here is an example of common big band music in the 20′s and 30′s:

Black And Tan Fantasy by Duke Ellington

Electric Blues and Rock

In the 50s and 60s there began a huge shift in blues. The modern sound was being born and al the famous modern blues guitarists appeared on the scene. B.B. King released his first album in this time frame, as did Eric Clapton as part of John Mayall and the Blues Breakers.

Many of the famous rock bands began their careers in the 60s and were extremely influenced by these early electric blues players. Cream, Led Zeppellin and Jimi Hendrix all were known to cover numerous blues standards.

A few of the early electric blues figures:

  • Buddy Guy
  • Elmore James
  • Jimmy Reed
  • Muddy Waters
  • Howlin’ Wolf
  • Bo Diddly

Unfortunately, due to the copyrighted nature of material recorded from the 50s and afterwards, I can’t bring you much in the way of samples. I am sure if you check around the internet you can find some samples. Better yet, go buy a few albums and listen for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

This is an archived version of the website.

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